It was bitterly cold on our 7 AM boat ride from our hotel to Nyaung Shwe, the start point of our trek, but temperatures soon started to climb rapidly in the sun. We had two guides, our regular female guide, and a young man who was a hiking specialist, familiar with the area – he was an English graduate and guide. He was delighted to practice English and told us much about Nyaung Shwe and how it had changed with the growth of tourism to Inle Lake. For some amazing photos of Nyaung Shwe please open this link.
After about a half an hour, we were in the countryside, passing a farm and headed towards the high hills. We enjoyed the beautiful landscape, with gentle rolling green hills alternating with farms and villages. We spent the next eight hours trekking in the undulating hillside, covering about 12 miles (19 km). As we walked, we passed local hill tribe minorities and observed their unique cultures. We stopped at one farming family and watched the girls of different ages sorting the corn crops by hand and drying the kernels in the sun. We learned that farming always came first, unless money was coming in from another activity. Our tour guide, who was translating for us, explained that she was from a similar family, and in the off-season when there were no tourists, she went home to help her family on the farm. These were proud and happy people but very poor by Western standards. As we stopped in the hill tribe villages, we reflected that in many respects, the way of life had almost remained untouched by time. In one village though, we spotted some cables and asked if the farms had electricity and our guide explained that electricity was available in the cool season, when the hydro-electric pump (donated by Japan) had enough water from the swollen stream to function.
As we traversed the rolling Shan hills and passed many agricultural fields, we caught breathtaking views of the Inle Lake below us, twinkling in the sunlight. High up in the hills, from many different vantage points, we were able to truly appreciate the water’s beauty.
At about 1 PM, we stopped and talked to the locals at a well that was used by everybody. One woman, who looked just like everybody else, was the owner of two of the farms. The farm owner was very friendly and asked about our plans for lunch – she wanted to invite us but we very politely declined as our guides had supplied a packed lunch for a picnic.
About 1.30 PM, our two guides stopped and gave us the news that our next destination, a village high above in the hills, was at least another two hours of climbing. We calculated that trying to complete the full circular walk might easily take us to in excess of ten hours for the day. We proposed carrying on for a bit and then returning the way we came and this was accepted by the two guides. Our bodies soon told us when it was time to turn around – it was getting very uncomfortable hiking up steep hills in the full sun at temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius. To put this in perspective though, local people climbed up and down these hills many times a week, taking their produce to market, on their backs to Nyaung Shwe. Also for the Burmese, this was the cool season – in the hot season, temperatures reach in excess of 45 degrees Celsius but the local people still have the hills to climb and their produce to trade.
Around 2 PM, we stopped for our packed lunch and were seated under the shade of a tree, when to his horror, Alf noticed that the sole of one of his hiking boots was a little loose. By the time, Alf reached the end of the trek, he had lost the sole completely. That evening Alf sadly discarded his boots, reflecting on them as a trusted travelling companion.
As we walked down the hill, our guide told us that it was a local custom not to return from the hills with food. Our guides had over-catered for the packed lunch and we offered the remains to a woman with her two young daughters working in the fields – they were very grateful and wished us well. Also some of the leftover food was offered to the spirits, a Buddhist practice in Myanmar.
For us, our day hiking in the high hills above Inle Lake will always be memorable, just like the two preceding days exploring Inle Lake by boat.
Inle Lake must be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. For now, tourism has not had a negative impact on the local way of life. If you want to visit Inle Lake, we recommend that you do not wait too long because in the next few years tourism to Myanmar is likely to grow enormously and perhaps the innate beauty of Inle Lake will be lost forever.